Two books by Peter JohnstonChoice Words and Opening Minds, are the foundation of this reflection on the impact we have on children.

Every child walks into school each day with much of their story already written. The perceptions and comments of others have already begun to shape their self-image. As educators, we must engage, inspire, and empower children to continue writing this narrative, and in many cases, revising and editing it. The language and words we use with children change their lives. Over time, their experiences with the language of their parents, teachers, peers, and selves begin to become reality and define them.

How can we promote a positive narrative during the short time we have them in our care on a daily basis? We must provide a democratic, dialogic, and positive learning environment filled with opportunities to think, imagine, collaborate, and challenge one another respectfully. Such conditions welcome voice, choice, change, and growth. This environment removes the authoritarian presence and allows students to be co-creators of learning, which in turn breeds a positive and productive learning environment.

Remember, being positive does not always mean complimenting the learner but rather the learning! Most commonly used forms of praise are actually counterproductive. Praise is most productive when used in casual processes. Feedback like “Good job!” or “You are so smart!” implicitly suggest that a student is either good/bad or smart/dumb, and you become the judge. Prevent using stems such as “I like how you…” because this puts children in the position of being the pleaser while other children listen in and wonder why their work is not valued. Again, you become the judge. More productive language would be “I noticed that you…,” or “How did that make you feel?” The focus becomes less about the result and more about the effort and process. By doing so, we develop children with dynamic learning frames who view learning as an opportunity to grow rather than children with fixed-performance frames who believe intelligence is inherent and outcomes are predetermined.

It is critical to remember that you are a co-author in the personal narratives children write.

How do you use language to inspire, empower, and NOT judge your students?

~Jered Pennington

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